11 July 2024

Democrat Party veteran Chalermchai Srion is now caretaker of the party’s top two posts – leader and secretary general – after Jurin Laksanawisit stepped down as acting Democrat chief.

Both politicians quit their posts shortly after the May 14 general election to take responsibility for the party’s poor performance in the national vote, which saw Democrat MP seats drop from 52 in the 2019 election to 25.

But Jurin stayed on as acting party leader and Chalermchai as acting secretary general.

Thailand’s oldest political party, formed in April 1946, has suffered infighting over recent years that has seen many long-time key figures leave to join other parties.

Those who remained have been at loggerheads – particularly over who should become the next leader of the opposition party. Two previous party meetings, in July and August, to select a new leader and other executives, failed to reach a quorum after a boycott by supporters of former Democrat leader and ex-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The stayaway by Abhisit’s supporters blocked the rival group led by Chalermchai from securing the party leadership.

Advantage by numbers

Chalermchai’s faction would almost certainly prevail in any vote because, under party rules, Democrat MPs control 70% of the votes and non-MP party members only 30%.

His faction, which backs Democrat ex-MP and acting deputy leader Narapat Kaeothong as the new party leader, has 20 of the 25 Democrat MPs. Abhisit’s supporters sought to change the 70:30 rule, but failed.

Chalermchai, 58, was elected as the new acting Democrat leader by the party’s caretaker executive board at a meeting on November 14, when Jurin announced his resignation as acting leader.

Chalermchai’s rise comes at a time when the Democrats are severely split. While Abhisit’s supporters and Democrat seniors back the party’s status quo and existing rules, Chalermchai’s faction seeks reform and revision of rules to allow promising young politicians to assume the party leader’s post.

According to current rules, a candidate for Democrat leader should have been a party member for at least five years, an elected MP, or a government minister nominated by the party.

MPs in Chalermchai’s faction point out that this restriction prevents new Democrat politicians like Suchatvee Suwansawat, an engineering professor who contested the last Bangkok governor election for the Democrats, from becoming new party leader.

Slim chance for Abhisit

Analysts view that Abhisit has only a slim chance of returning as Democrat leader, reckoning that someone from Chalermchai’s faction has a far higher chance.

While some politicians in Chalermchai’s faction maintain that Narapat, acting deputy party leader in charge of the North, is still its candidate for the top job, other Democrat MPs loyal to Chalermchai reportedly suggest he should take the helm himself to help prevent further party division and restore its popularity. These Democrats agree that Chalermchai is the only option for leader in this situation, according to a party source.

One potential obstacle for Chalermchai is his promise before this year’s election that he would quit politics if the Democrats won fewer than the 52 MP seats they gained in 2019. However, his supporters argue that Chalermchai made the vow in a bid to protect the party at a time of crisis rather than for his own benefit.

Lack of quorum less likely

To overcome the quorum problem, the party’s caretaker executive board – dominated by MPs from Chalermchai’s faction – resolved at the last meeting to add 150 “reserve voters” who can step in if existing voters are absent.

This offers an advantage to Chalermchai’s faction at the next vote for a new Democrat leader and executive board, due on December 9.

Born on March 7, 1965, in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, Chalermchai obtained his bachelor’s degree in law from Ramkhamhaeng University and a master’s in liberal arts (policy and planning) from Krirk University.

He launched his political career in 1990 after being elected to the provincial administrative council in his hometown. He became chairman of Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Provincial Administrative Council in 1995, serving until 1997.

Chalermchai entered Parliament for the first time at the age of 36 after being elected to represent his home province. He was re-elected in 2005, 2007, and 2011. However, he failed to get elected in the two previous general elections.

Chalermchai served as labour minister in the Abhisit government between June 2010 and August 2011, and as agriculture minister in the previous administration led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha from July 2019 to September 2023.

He previously served as Democrat deputy leader and secretary general, before assuming the post of acting leader.

Thai PBS World’s Political Desk